One of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), set out by the United Nations, is to protect and conserve life below water (United Nations, 2021). Our oceans cover 71% of Earth’s surface, making it the planet’s largest habitat. Did you know that more than 800 species living in the depths of our oceans have interacted with plastic litter? Ingestion and entanglement of plastic debris has accumulated by 49% in the last two decades (Sweet, et al., 2019).

Marine debris – litter that winds up in oceans – consists largely of plastics, which have a long-life cycle and low-recycling rate. An estimate of 1.15 and 2.41 million tonnes of plastic waste is released into our oceans through rivers (Lebreton, et al., 2017). This is a direct result of mass production and consumption of plastics since the 1950s; the “Plastics Era”.

Initially, 80% of marine plastic litter is disposed of on land, however, it enters our oceans through different pathways, such as rivers and estuaries. According to Lebreton et al., (2017) of all the polluting rivers in the world, the top 20 polluting rivers were found in Asia.

Did you know that tourism is also one of the sources of marine litter? In fact, food and beverage packages – also known as macro-plastics – are frequently found in reef environments (Lamb, et al., 2018). Macro-plastics break down to micro- and nano-plastics. Micro-plastics are fragments <5 mm in diameter, while nano-plastics are particles <100 nm (Huang, et al., 2021).

Despite an estimated 4.85 trillion micro-plastic particles in the global ocean, the subject area remains largely undersampled. Such particles are easily ingested by fauna below water, while nano-plastics are rarely scrutinised (Cundy, et al., 2021). Consequently, a lack of scientific knowledge about marine plastic restricts appropriate policies (Mendenhall, 2018).

In the recent years, however, researchers have begun to investigate the effects of macro- and micro-plastics on ocean life. One study by Lamb et al., (2018) demonstrated that macro-plastic pollution increases the likelihood of coral disease; from 4% to 89% whenever corals have some form of encounter with marine debris. Luckily, there are macro- and micro-level actions by means of which we can conserve ocean life.

Macro-level actions

The United Nations Environment Programme offers the following recommendations for policymakers, governments, and businesses based on current scientific knowledge (Sweet, et al., 2019):

  • The public and private sectors are encouraged to: (i) join the Global Partnership on Marine Litter and (ii) interact with the partnership by creating plans and targets to decrease waste levels entering coral reef habitats.
  • Countries should develop and/or evaluate national action plans and mitigation measures by conducting strategic assessments to recognise pathways and manage local sources of plastic pollution. Moreover, countries should impose bans on plastics that pose a threat to our environment. Eventually consumer demand must be addressed to ensure a long-lasting change.
  • Governments, research institutions, and other entities are also encouraged to engage with one another and invest in research for a better understanding of the consequences of marine litter on ecosystems, while improving data collection for better judgement.

Micro-level actions

There are always simple actions at our disposal that can tackle the ocean plastics problem on an individual level. These actions include, but are not limited to:

Seeking knowledge

Voluntarily consult credible sources to increase your knowledge. For example, sign up for free online courses created by the SDG Academy (click here).

Sharing knowledge

Actively impart your knowledge among family and friends with the goal to inspire change. For instance, organise interactive quizzes, games, or debates revolving around topics, such as climate change or marine debris.

Taking responsibility

Put your knowledge into action by practising it in your everyday life. For instance, carry a reusable bag when shopping, use items that are environmentally friendly, reuse or donate plastic items, clean up your neighbourhood, and support organisations that are trying to tackle the plastics crisis (Hancock, 2019). Dispose of any waste the right way, even when travelling. Practise the 3Rs: reduce, reuse, and recycle. Firstly, try to reduce plastic consumption. Secondly, reuse plastics products as much as possible. Finally, recycle plastics, if reusing it is no option (Cundy, et al., 2021).

Getting creative

Channel your imagination into something creative using plastic resources. Visit Plastic Pollution Coalition for inspiration.

So, what will you do to conserve ocean life now that you have a better idea of your powers? Act today, act now.



Cundy, A., Lampitt, R. & Moore, M., 2021. Chevening Explores: The war on plastic & saving our oceans [Online Lecture] (9 March 2021).

Hancock, L., 2019. World Wildlife Magazine. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 16 March 2021].

Huang, W., Chen, M., Song, B., Deng, J., Shen, M., Chen, Q., Zeng, G. & Liang, J., 2021. Microplastics in the coral reefs and their potential impacts on corals: A mini-review. Science of the Total Environment, Volume DCCLXII, pp. 1-15.

Lamb, J., Willis, B., Fiorenza, E., Couch, C., Howard, R., Rader, D., True, J., Kelly, L.,  Ahmad, A., Jompa, J. & Harvell, D., 2018. Plastic waste associated with disease on coral reefs. Science, CCCLIX(6374), pp. 460-462.

Lebreton, L., Van der Zwet, J., Damsteeg, J., Slat, B., Andrady, A. & Reisser, J., 2017. River plastic emissions to the world’s oceans. Nature Communications, Volume VIII, pp. 1-10.

Mendenhall, E., 2018. Oceans of plastic: A research agenda to propel policy development. Marine Policy, Volume XCVI, pp. 291-298.

SDG Academy, 2018. Home: SDG Academy. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 16 March 2021].

United Nations Environment Program, 2019. Plastics and shallow water coral reefs. Synthesis of the science for policy-makers, Sweet, M., Stelfox, M. & Lamb, J. (Authors)

United Nations, 2021. United Nations: Goals. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 16 March 2021].